Many movies have covered the event, from 1942's Mrs. Miniver to 2007's Atonement, as well as Leslie Norman's underrated 1958 film Dunkirk. But none have managed to capture the sheer horror of the situation these troops found themselves in as Christopher Nolan's latest, which is an out-and-out masterpiece of technical wizardry and raw, grinding sound design. Long a passion project for the director, Dunkirk drops you into the thick of the action from the get-go with the welcome assumption that audiences will enter the film with at least some prior knowledge, and doesn't let up until the very end of its relatively short 106 minute running-time with the constant ticking of what feels like an ever-present clock. Nolan is determined to put you through the wringer, and does so by placing you up close and personal with the men on land, at sea, and in the air.
The closest person we have to a leading character is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young and resourceful grunt who stumbles onto the beach after evading the Germans. He quickly plots his escape by attempting to board a boat carrying a wounded soldier, and later teaming up with a young soldier played by Harry Styles (who is absolutely fine) as they try desperately to survive the growing carnage. At sea, proud mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets sail from Britain to rescue "our boys" and do his part in the war. Picking up a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy on the way, Dawson must navigate oil-soaked waters with burning ships all around and avoid the German planes screaming in the sky. Battling the Luftwaffe in the air are Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), the former having to carry out his duty without the aid of his fuel gauge.
These stories do not take place chronologically, a gimmick now something of a Nolan trademark. While this works wonders in a film like Memento, it adds an unnecessary layer of confusion to the unfolding narrative in Dunkirk, occasionally removing you from the action as you try and establish where we are in the story. With Nolan's decision to do away with any backstory to the characters - who are still fully realised and wonderfully performed - there's also a lack of emotional investment. Yet it could be argued that this approach only adds to the fog of war and the terrifying randomness of combat, and this is the most thrilling depiction of battle since 1998's Saving Private Ryan, only without the spatter and gore. Nolan also avoids flag-waving patriotism and finger-pointing, something that Spielberg's Oscar-winner failed to do. Although it's not the complete masterpiece many of us hoped for (although I suspect the majority will disagree), Dunkirk is one of Nolan's most accomplished and dazzling pieces of work. It may not move you, but it will leave you in awe.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cillian Murphy